A group of 19 Eritrean refugees left Italy for Sweden Friday, becoming the first set of asylum-seekers to be relocated as a part of a resettlement plan by the European Union, which also agreed Thursday to beef up its deportation efforts. Under the plan, 160,000 refugees will relocate from Greece and Italy to other European countries as the continent faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The new plan by the EU hopes to reduce and split the burden of the ongoing refugee crisis on the frontline countries between 28 member states, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported. The plan aims completion within the next two years and was approved after Brussels overruled opposition for the program from some eastern European countries.
"Today is an important day for the European Union, it is a day of victory ... for those who believe in Europe, for those who believed in saving human lives," Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said, according to AFP, adding: "It is a defeat for those who claim it is better for the Mediterranean to become a lake of death ... and believe that scaring the European people is the way forward."
Alfano and European Migration Commissioner Dmitris Avramopoulos escorted the refugees to an aircraft at Rome's Ciampino airport, which was scheduled to take them to an airport near the Arctic Circle. Avramopoulos is also scheduled to visit an immigration center on the Italian island of Lampedusa that will be run by Italian officials and the EU together, Reuters reported.
"This is a significant day, a positive and important one because it's the start of Europe's relocation plan," UN refugee agency's southern Europe spokeswoman, Carlotta Sami, told AFP, adding: "We hope it will continue but we know more must be done. There is a great need for measures to be put in place to allow (asylum-seekers) to arrive in Europe safely."
The latest transfer comes as a major demand from Rome, which is under pressure from northern European nations to prevent refugees from absconding without proper identification and send back those who do not qualify for asylum. At present, Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country, Eritreans escaping forced military service, and Iraqis escaping violence by the Islamic State militants qualify for asylum, Reuters reported.
While Germany and Austria agreed to send asylum specialists to help Italy and Greece with the crisis, Avramopoulos said, according to the BBC, that nearly 10 planes would take failed asylum seekers back home from Europe this month.
Over 550,000 refugees have come into Europe this year and Germany has been hosting most of them.